The lyrics could refer to a search for spiritual enlightenment or a search for love. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Bono said the song was "an anthem of doubt more than faith." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
The Edge came up with the title and melody, and Bono wrote lyrics around it.
This was influenced by Gospel music. Bono wanted The Joshua Tree to explore various forms of American music they had encountered while touring there.
Bono has written a variety of "spiritual" songs. This one makes distinct references to Jesus: "I believe in the kingdom... you broke the bonds and you loosed the chains" he is acknowledging salvation and yet he still hasn't found what he is looking for. This need for deeper fulfillment and futile search corresponds to a setback in the cycle of faith. The setback of Inferiority is followed by Confusion. Rather than getting back onto the path towards a better faith, another setback occurs. The frustration of the first setback grows, causing confusion and a distorted perspective. (thanks, Mike - Mountlake Terrace, WA)
The Edge (Q Magazine, December 1998): "We were listening to some Gospel during The Joshua Tree sessions - I remember The Mighty Clouds and the Reverend Cleveland and The Staple Singers. The original was more loose, almost Jamaican. Bono hit on the melody and I had the title in a notebook. At first, no one took it that seriously because it sounded so unlike anything we'd ever done and it didn't gel until the mix, but when it was finished we all realized that we had something special. The reviewers didn't like it though. One American said it was a pale imitation of the original form and that Foreigner song I Want To Know What Love Is was better." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Bono sometimes introduced this as "A kind of Gospel song with a restless spirit."
The Gospel choir The New Voices Of Freedom covered this. When U2 heard their version, they arranged to rehearse it with them in their Harlem church, which led to the performance in Madison Square Garden included on Rattle And Hum. This version was released as a single.
The video featured U2 walking around the streets of Las Vegas.
This won the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group in 1988. Their bass player, Adam Clayton, missed the presentation because he was in the bathroom.
In 1991, a group called Negativland released a single called "U2," which was a parody of this. They were sued by Island Records and forced to pull the record.
The working title was "Under The Weather."
A cover version by The Chimes hit #6 in England.
On an episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, U2 took part in Conan's comedy bit "Celebrity Secrets" where they joked that one time the band was in a grocery store, and could not find the cereal, Boo Berry, and that was the inspiration for this song. (thanks, Bert - Pueblo, NM)